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Martina Navratilova reflects on her attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 5:55 PM

In 31 years as a professional tennis player, Martina Navratilova withdrew from competition only because the acute pain of an injury made it impossible to continue.

Last week, more than 14,000 feet into an assault on Mount Kilimanjaro, Navratilova felt no pain. She simply couldn't breathe, which made trudging just 10 yards an unbearable task.

Navratilova didn't realize that her lungs were half-full with fluid. She only knew, in the unmistakable way that high-performing athletes know their bodies, that something was horribly wrong.

At a doctor's urging, Navratilova abandoned the climb she had undertaken to raise money and awareness for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, was strapped to a toboggan-like stretcher and ferried down Africa's tallest peak by four porters to Kilimanjaro Hospital, where high-altitude pulmonary edema was diagnosed.

On Sunday, roughly two hours after being released from a four-day stay at Nairobi Hospital, the 54-year-old Navratilova sat in the garden of a friend's home on the outskirts of Nairobi, a 560-page novel and a dog by her side, reflecting on the experience via telephone with a handful of reporters.

The trek, she said, was the most physically and mentally demanding thing she had ever been through, made in the face of unrelenting rain that turned to snow on Day Two - conditions the local guides and porters who accompanied the 27 hikers described as the worst they'd seen on the mountain.

Nonetheless, Navratilova spoke about her admiration for the 18 who reached the summit Saturday, her belief in the cause they championed, her affection for the fellow hikers who urged her on, and her appreciation for the doctor who diagnosed the gravity of her condition and accompanied her down the mountain.

Nothing about the experience, she insisted, had altered her definition of success, which despite her countless trophies and record 59 Grand Slam titles has never revolved solely around winning. "I've always said, 'The only failure is when you fail to try,' " Navratilova said. "The other failure would be not giving your best effort. And I feel I did both: I tried and gave my very best effort. It just wasn't meant to be."

Navratilova undertook the challenge less than two months after undergoing radiation for a non-invasive form of breast cancer. In addition to being remarkably fit, she lives in Aspen, Colo., and often hikes and skis at high altitude. But as a precaution, she underwent sophisticated altitude testing in England this summer and passed with impressive results.

But conditions on the mountain were dreadful from the start. Navratilova also launched into the climb in gastrointestinal distress, having eaten bad fish the night before. Three days into the six-day ascent she realized she might not be able to continue.

The next afternoon, after the group had stopped climbing for the day, Navratilova wrote in her diary as best she could. On Sunday, she struggled to decipher her handwriting as she read aloud over the phone: "Everything is taking a monumental effort. Going to the bathroom, getting dressed, setting up the tent. I don't want to ever . . ."

She paused to explain she couldn't make out the next words. Then she picked up when it became legible.

"I'm crying."

Said Navratilova: "That's when I stopped writing. At that point I knew there was no way I was going to make it to the top."

As of Sunday, Navratilova's group had raised roughly $80,000 toward their goal of $130,000. Donations are still being accepted. For information, go to www.firstgiving.com/martinakiliclimb.


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